Human Security and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Atme Syrian Refugee Camp, March 2014
Human Security and the Syrian Refugee Crisis - Laura Mojonnier

The two main concepts of security – human and state – are often seen as existing in tension. The thinking goes that for the state to perpetuate and protect itself in the face of threats like domestic unrest, terrorism, or foreign invasion, it must occasionally subordinate its citizens’ human rights. This rationale can be seen in the choice of the Syrian and Libyan regimes to try to crush the protests that began in 2011. But in reality, state and human security complement each other; one cannot be achieved without the other. Where people live in want or need, and where their human rights are regularly violated, the state is insecure because its people are insecure. Additionally, where the state is insecure politically, environmentally, or internationally, human security cannot be guaranteed. Recent developments in North Africa and the Middle East exemplify this truth, especially the evolving humanitarian crisis in Syria, which has produced 2.3 million registered refugees and 6.5 million Internally Displaced Persons to date. The international community must bear in mind this interdependent relationship between human and state security as it attempts to address the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as achieve a durable peace in the region.

The concept of state security developed when a nation’s principle task was to protect its boundaries and people from external threat, usually from interstate wars. The concept of human security, alternately, reflects the more complex world in which we currently live, where the causes and externalities of conflicts emerge out of a web of interrelated factors, and where “humanitarian action has become intertwined with the political, military and development dimensions of violent conflict – an uneasy relationship” (“Human Security Now”). The UN defines human security simply as “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want” – the ability to live in dignity, without having one’s human rights violated. This breadth is one of the chief benefits of the definition. It captures the evolving complexity of the modern international environment.

While the exact causes of the Arab uprisings vary by country, most were triggered by the region’s severe lack of human security, such as youth unemployment, destructive droughts, and abuse by authorities. But many Arab governments viewed mass street protests as affronts to national security – not to mention their own power. When they tried to crush the demonstrations in the name of state security, as in Libya and Syria, they ironically sparked protracted, bloody civil wars, which dramatically decreased security by any definition. The consequences of such clashes are perhaps severest in Syria, where the war rages on. As the international community contemplates how to mediate the conflict and its fallout, it must recognize that though the political and humanitarian crises are linked, they must be dealt with separately.

The humanitarian emergency in Syria must be addressed immediately, before the conflict ends, because at the moment a political resolution is uncertain. The war has killed close to 115,000 people, including more than 11,000 children and 41,000 civilians. Those who remain often fear for their lives; they may have wounded family members, or have seen their livelihoods evaporate. If they can, they migrate, either within Syria or abroad. Many move to neighboring states: today Lebanon hosts 845,858 Syrian refugees; while Jordan hosts 567,111; Turkey, 553,281; Iraq, 207,053; and Egypt, 130,841. In many of these countries, tensions are high, as natives lament the sudden influx of migrants when there is no capacity to absorb them. While these refugees are protected by UNCHR’s supranational mandate, their arrival in such large numbers can be seen as a threat to national sovereignty. The international community must address the burdens adjacent countries face by compensating them for their additional costs on schooling, healthcare, and infrastructure.

Moreover, in the post-9/11 world, the concern with terrorism has lead to a securitization of the migration debate. States have sincere fears about combatants being mixed in with the refugees, having observed the Somali situation in Kenya. Syria’s neighbors have opened their borders with compassion, but they must be assured that their state security will be maintained. To start, refugee camps should be kept far from borders, and infrastructure like schools and health facilities should be built so that the refugees do not become susceptible to the influence of radicals, which may happen if the migrants lack basic human security. Such actions can help prevent another situation like the birth of the Taliban, which grew out of the “mud and hopelessness of the refugee camps in Pakistan, along the Afghan border”.

Humanitarian action is not enough, however. To end the conflict, a political agreement must be reached. Once a safe environment is established after disarmament, a peace accord that addresses the war’s root causes must be adopted. Such an agreement should use a human security framework to establish not only political and military détente, but also orderly repatriation and the long-term human security that will prevent a return to war. This accord must disarm combatants; establish property restitution and reconciliation programs; achieve justice for victims and hold perpetrators accountable; and put in place the legal apparatuses (police, minority rights, well-timed elections), infrastructure (jails, schools, hospitals), and economic systems (land reform, etc.) that will foster rule of law and lasting development. The returning refugees’ psychological states must also be considered, including feelings of desperation and long absences from school for children, to help stave off the increased crime and social unrest that sometimes follow repatriation. Ultimately, the current situation in the Middle East and North Africa shows us that a lack of human security can be both a cause and consequence of contemporary conflict, and that fostering this broader, more nuanced approach to security is the only viable way to create enduring peace.